Student Transforms into National Geographic Star

By Dennis Walikainen | Published

PhD student Alex Guth on camera for National Geographic in Kenya.
PhD student Alex Guth on camera for National Geographic in Kenya.

Alex Guth, Michigan Tech PhD student, online lecturer, and Kenyan geology researcher, has been tapped as an on-camera expert for a National Geographic television show airing next spring.

The focus of the National Geographic TV special is the concept of Pangaea, the super continent that once existed before the current continents parted ways. The Kenya Rift shows how continents tear apart, and the nearby island of Madagascar is a consequence of past rifting. Madagascar's past connection to Pangaea is seen and rocks and animals of the island, for example, lemurs, unique to Madagascar, evolved there after the split, leaving their relatives in Africa. 

“I couldn’t speak as a biologist,” Guth said. But, she could--and did--discuss her areas of expertise: mapping a visual history of the rift (her Master’s research) and tracking the history of climate change in the region (her PhD focus), which is also known as paleo-climatology. These are 10-million-year histories.

Producers working with National Geographic’s TV show used Google to hunt for the right scientist. When they Googled Alex, they discovered that she had some camera-savvy and knew the geology of the Kenya rift area they were interested in portraying.

First, she had to do a phone interview, an audition, actually. “They were asking me questions to see how I would respond,” she said. She passed that test, and, when she got on location, she found that her audition prepared her well for the way TV specials are produced: with the same questions asked and answered multiple times.

“They’d keep asking until I smoothed my answer out,” says Guth. “It’s funny how you answer questions differently each time.”

Spending long hours outside in Africa was not easy for Guth. Thanks to jet lag, a lack of sunscreen and red hair, “It didn’t take long to get sunburned,” she says.

She did remember to wear her Michigan Tech shirt, however, much to the delight of University officials.

An additional, somewhat daunting task was explaining her work at a level television viewers could understand. “That means talking not as a scientist but as an ordinary person,” she says, “making it accessible for them, not for us.”

And being on camera presented some other challenges to the scientist.

“I had to gaze or point at a certain area that really meant nothing,” she said. “The lighting would be right, and it just looked good on camera.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.